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1999: Prove it

In the fourth installment of our look back at 1999, Mike Piazza gets emotional and Bobby Valentine goes to the videotape.

After a 3-3 road trip to Cincinnati and Chicago, the Mets returned home to begin a nine-game homestand on April 27. In a refrain that would be sounded over and over again during the 1999 season, the media instructed the Mets that they needed to prove they could beat each opponent they would face at Shea Stadium over this stretch, with the reasons varying slightly each time.

First, they were counseled that they had to defeat the San Diego Padres to prove they could best the 1998 National League champs. In truth, the Padres of 1999 were a different animal from the pennant winners of the year before. When San Diego lost Kevin Brown to the deep pockets of their neighbors to the north, the team all but raised the white flag, making little effort to resign slugger Ken Caminiti or gold glove centerfielder Steve Finley, then trading away Greg Vaughn's powerful bat to the Reds. Sports Illustrated's season preview tarred the Padres with the unflattering title of "Marlins West."

San Diego's weakened position only made the Mets' 6-2 loss in the series opener that much more galling. Masato Yoshii allowed four runs and five walks in just 4 2/3 innings and got booed off the mound when he exited the game. Mike Piazza, who stranded seven men on base all by himself, received an even harsher reception from the crowd, and the press. The back pages grumbled that Piazza hadn't done anything with the bat since returning from the DL; he'd gone 1-for-13 since being reactivated, at a time when the phrase Small Sample Size was not yet in most fans' vocabulary.

Not for the first or last time, scribes raised accusations that the catcher was Not Clutch, that he could stand to show more emotion and prove he cared. "It would be a nice addition to the 30 homers and 100 runs batted in that Piazza is bound to compile this season," Jack Curry wrote in the Times, "if he also tossed in a couple of dozen smiles and waves to the mezzanine section."

Piazza would respond to both charges the next night. Al Leiter threw seven excellent innings and handed a slim 2-1 lead to Armando Benitez in the eighth inning, but Benitez walked the first man he faced, the light hitting Quilvio Veras, then gave up one-out doubles to Tony Gwynn and Phil Nevin that put the Padres ahead 3-2. San Diego had reason to feel confident at this point, since they possessed a record winning streak of 181 games in which they had the lead in the eighth inning or later. That was due mostly to closer Trevor Hoffman, but on this evening, Hoffman retired no one.

John Olerud reached base to lead off the bottom of the ninth when shortstop Damien Jackson couldn't quite handle his grounder. Mike Piazza took the very next pitch Hoffman threw and rocketed it into the bullpen beyond the right field fence, a trademark opposite field homer that gave the Mets a walkoff 4-3 victory. Just to make Jack Curry happy, he pumped his fist vigorously and pointed to his dugout in celebration as he rounded the bases.

The Mets took the series finale, 8-5, by capitalizing on nine walks issued by Padres pitchers on a cold, blustery afternoon. They then welcomed the San Francisco Giants to Shea for a weekend set beginning on April 30. This was another team the Mets had to prove they could beat, or so sayeth the press. The reasoning put forth this time was because the Giants exhibited Dirty Uniform Intangibles that the Mets supposedly lacked.

In 1998, the Giants surged while the Mets sagged, finishing one game ahead of New York to tie for the NL wild card spot with the Cubs. This, it was widely believed, was because Dusty Baker was a gritty, player-friendly manager, the polar opposite of the brainiac strategery and head games of Bobby Valentine. When the Giants arrived at Shea, the local papers were filled with glowing testimonials to Baker's managerial grission, with some of the grandest compliments coming from the Mets themselves.

So it must have been especially gratifying for Valentine when the Mets swept the Giants in three straight, winning in every conceivable way. In the first game, San Francisco starter Shawn Estes blew a gasket when called for multiple balks by (who else?) home plate ump Bob Davidson. He never regained his composure, and the Mets gladly took advantage of the meltdown in their 7-2 win. The next night, a wild Orel Hershiser afforded the Giants several opportunities to take the game, all of which they eschewed. The Mets did not return the favor, and a Brian McRae grand slam proved the difference in a 9-4 victory.

The finale brought an unlikely pitchers' duel between Giants starter Kirk Reuter and Masato Yoshii. Bobby Valentine had taken the blame for Yoshii's struggles after his last troubled start. According to him, the pitcher had changed his position on the rubber at his suggestion, and this move robbed Yoshii's best pitch, the shuto (a reverse slider, more or less), of its effectiveness. In a bout of self-flagellating forensics, the manager even dug up video to prove his thesis and played it over and over for a press corps that did its best to feign amusement.

So Valentine was happy to take the credit when Yoshii reverted to his old pitching style and threw six scoreless innings against San Francisco. Reuter did the same for seven, and zeroes remained on the board until pinch hitter Matt Franco collected a two-out single in the bottom of the eighth. Rickey Henderson followed with a towering pop up, one hit so high it got caught in the swirling winds above the highest rungs of Shea Stadium. Henderson's ball veered wildly on its way down and clanked off of shortstop Ramon Martinez's glove. An alert Franco scored all the way from first, Henderson scored soon thereafter for good measure, and the Mets held on to prevail 2-0 and complete the sweep.

With that challenge bested, the Mets were then told no, really, the Astros—who came to town on May 3—were the real test of their mettle. The Mets and Astros had hooked up for a wild series in late September of 1998, with New York taking three of four games at the Astrodome while the two teams exchanged harsh words and retaliatory brushback pitches. But ultimately, the Killer B Astros had made the playoffs and the Mets hadn't, meaning the home team had to once again prove it could play on another team's elite level.

The Mets appeared up to this task when they won the opener, 5-3. Subbing for Henderson, Roger Cedeño enjoyed a Henderson-like day, swiping two bags, scoring two runs, and turning a single into a double. The rest of the series would not go as swimmingly, however. The next evening, Al Leiter pitched six solid innings but hung around to pitch a lousy seventh in which he allowed a triple to his opposite number, Mike Hampton, followed by a Craig Biggio RBI double and two-run homer from Derek Bell.

The Mets would lose the game, 6-1, and suffer an even more annoying defeat the next night. In the series finale, Bobby Jones and the Mets' bullpen kept the damage to the minimum through seven innings, and the Mets enjoyed a 4-3 lead in the top of the eighth. That's when Armando Benitez walked the leadoff batter, the unthreatening Chris Spiers, to bring up the fearsome heart of the Astros' batting order. Benitez nearly wriggled off the hook by retiring Biggio and Bell, but the next batter, Jeff Bagwell, took him deep to give Houston a 5-4 lead that would prove the margin of victory. The Mets made a feint stab at a comeback in the bottom of the eighth before Billy Wagner entered the game and struck out all four batters he faced.

It was a deflating end to what should have been a feel-good 6-3 home stand. Bad vibes, and worse pitching, would follow them out on their next trek, a rough road trip out west to Arizona and Colorado.